Emory biophysicist named Simons Investigator

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Oct. 14, 2021

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Ilya Nemenman was instrumental in Emory becoming a global leader in theoretical and modeling approaches to living systems. Now he has been named a 2021 Simons Investigator, one of the most prestigious recognitions for theoretical scientists in the prime of their research careers.

The Simons Foundation has named Ilya Nemenman one of its 2021 Simons Investigators, one of the most prestigious awards for a theoretical research scientist. The Emory College of Arts and Sciences professor of physics and biology has been instrumental in helping Emory become a global research leader in theoretical and modeling approaches to living systems.

The recognition for Nemenman, a pioneer in developing theories to model and make quantitatively precise predictions of biological information processing systems, comes with $100,000 annually for five years, with the potential for one five-year renewal. The award allows Nemenman to add post-doctoral researchers and students to Emory’s highly collaborative Theory and Modeling of Living Systems (TMLS) initiative. 

TMLS unites researchers from several Emory College departments, the Emory University School of Medicine and the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, with the aim to cultivate research to understand biology with a precision historically reserved for the physical sciences.

“I’m very proud and pleased to have been selected, but I honestly think that it’s more important that Emory has been able to grow this cluster of excellent people at the interface between physics and biology that is nearly unrivaled anywhere else in the country,” Nemenman says.

Originally trained in cosmology, Nemenman helped establish Emory as a global leader in the domain of theoretical biology and biophysics with his innovative idea that laws of the universe might have equivalent rules in complex biological systems. He has since identified numerous ways to distill cosmic order from the apparent randomness in biological networks.

Some of Nemenman’s work uses methods developed by Italian physicist Giorgio Parisi, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in October 2021 for his groundbreaking theoretical methods to understand complex systems. 

Nemenman laid the groundwork for TMLS more than a decade ago, helping attract to Emory the “nucleus” of quantitative physicists and biologists who could develop new theoretical approaches, working closely with experimental collaborators, says Stefan Boettcher, chair and professor of Emory’s Department of Physics. 

Since the TMLS launched in 2017, Nemenman has published findings with those experimental collaborators on subjects as varied as the distribution of sensory errors in songbirds’ vocal learning,  the dynamics of a worm perceiving and escaping pain and the collective cellular sensing underlying mammary gland development.

Such efforts to understand dynamics in biological systems — from single cells to entire ecologies — have the potential to make inroads in drug development, medical diagnostics and more.

“Ilya has tremendous breadth in what he’s doing,” Boettcher says. “It’s amazing that it is possible for him to employ arcane technology from the venerable field of statistical physics in a fashion that is applicable to life science matters. He is incredibly imaginative and creative.” 

Nemenman, who also served as chair of the American Physical Society’s Division of Biological Physics and is a Fellow in the society, hopes the Simons Investigator designation helps encourage more researchers to think creatively in exploring the general domain of complex interacting biological systems. 

Already, the pandemic has sparked more interest in the interdisciplinary field. The TMLS’s visibility also grew in the last year with a series of virtual webinars and workshops with global participation, including one examining how mathematical models might help get a handle on COVID-19

Nemenman’s expertise, along with his tremendous commitment to mentorship, helped bring those events to life. They also showcased Emory’s leadership in exploring scientific questions with real-world impacts, says Deborah W. Bruner, senior vice president for research at Emory. 

“Dr. Nemenman’s timely research and insistence on interdisciplinary collaboration is what fuels great innovation,” Bruner says. “I am delighted that the Simons Foundation recognizes his creative and promising scholarship and the work being done at Emory to further elevate it.” 

Nemenman plans to use the Simons funding to attract interested scientists to Emory as post-doctoral fellows in his research group. 

His goal is that their work helps them go on to become colleagues at other research universities, the way that former post-doc Audrey Sederberg — who co-developed a theoretical model for neural activity in the mouse brain before joining the faculty at the University of Minnesota — did.

Another former post-doc, Andrew Mugler, recently won the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award and is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I can talk to an amazing group of researchers here, to shape these ideas and do this work,” Nemenman says. “You never work alone, so in many ways this award is just the latest of the incredible things this community we’ve built at Emory has achieved.”